The Seven Lively Arts
by Gilbert Seldes

 

An Open Letter to the Movie Magnates

(pages 320-343)
 

Manifestations of the Great God Bogus-and what annoys me most is that they might at that very moment be hailing Apollo or Dionysos, or be themselves participating in some of the minor rites of the Great God Pan. 

[320]

An Open Letter to the Movie Magnates 

 

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE MOVIE 

MAGNATES 

IGNORANT AND UNHAPPY PEOPLE: 

The Lord has brought you into a narrow placewhat you would call a tight corner-and you are beginning to feel the pressure. A voice is heard in the land saying that your day is over. The name of the voice is Radio, broadcasting nightly to announce that the unequal struggle between the tired washerwoman and the captions written by or for Mr Griffith is ended. It is easier to listen than to read. And it is long since you have given us anything significant to see. 

You may say that radio will ruin the movies no more than the movies ruined the theatre. The difference is that your foundation is insecure: you are monstrously over-capitalized and monstrously undereducated; the one thing you cannot stand is a series of lean years. You have to keep on going because you have from the beginning considered the pictures as a business, not as an entertainment. Perhaps in your desperate straits you will for the first time try to think about the movie, to see it steadily and see it whole. 

My suggestion to you is that you engage a number of men and women: an archaeologist to unearth the history of the moving picture; a mechanical genius to explain the camera and the projector to you; a typical movie fan, if you can find one; and above all 

[323]

a man of no practical capacity whatever: a theorist. Let these people get to work for you; do what they tell you to do. You will hardly lose more money than in any other case. 

If the historian tells you that the pictures you produced in igio were better than those you now lose money on, he is worthless to you. But if he fails to tell you that the pictures of igio pointed the way to the real right thing and that you have since departed from that way, discharge him as a fool. For that is exactly what has occurred. In your beginnings you were on the right track; I believe that in those days you still looked at the screen. 

Ten years later you were too busy looking at, or after, your bank account. Remember that ten years ago there wasn't a great name in the movies. And then, thinking of your present plight, recall that you deliberately introduced great names and chose Sir Gilbert Parker, Rupert Hughes, and Mrs Elinor Glvn. If I may qu'ote an author you haven't filmed, it s~all not be forgiven you. 

Your historian ought to tell you that the moving picture came into being as the result of a series of mechanical developments; your technician will add the details about the camera and projector. From both you will learn that you are dealing with move ment governed by light. It will be news to you.You seem not to realize the simplest thing about your business. Further, you will learn that everything 

[324]

YOU need to do must be by these two agencies: movement and light. (Counting in movement everything f pace and in light everything which light can make visible to the eye, even if it be an emotion: do you recall the unnatural splash of white in a street scene in Caligari?) It will occur to you that the cut-back, the alternating exposition of two concurrent actions, the vision, the dream, are all good; and that the Close-up, dearest of all your findsl usually dissociates a face or an object from its moving background will alneda ris from what was done with you it in the early days. 

I warn you again they were not great 

Pictures except for The Avenging Conscience and-one you didn't make-Cabiria. To each of these a poet contributed. (Peace, Mr Griffith; the poet in your case was E. A. Poe; and the warrior poet of Fiume contributed the scenario for the second.) Mr Griffith contrived in his picture to project both beauty and terror by combining Annabel Lee with The Tell tale Heart. A sure instinct led him to disengage the vast emotion of longing and of lost love through an action of mystery and terror. (I think he made a happy ending somehow-by having the central portion of his story appear as a dream. How little it mattered since the real emotion came through the story.) The picture was projected in a palpable atmosphere; it was felt. After ten years I recall dark 

[325]

masses and ghostly rays of light. And if I may anticipate the end, let me compare it with a picture of 1922, a picturization as you call it, of Annabel Lee. It was all scenery and captions; it presented a detestable little boy and a pretty little girl doing Tsthetic dancing along cliffs by the sea; one almost saw the Ocean View Hotel in the background. Mercilessly the stanzas appeared on the screen; but nothing was allowed to happen except a vulgar representation of calf love. I cannot bear to describe the disagreeable picture of grief at the end; I do not dare to think what you may now be preparing with a really great poem. The lesson is not merely one of taste; it is a question of knowing the camera, of realizing that you must project emotion by movement and by picture combined. 

I am trying to trace for you the development of the serious moving picture as a bogus art, and I can't do better than assure you that it was best before it was an "art" at all. (Or I can indicate that slapstick comedy, which you despise, is not bogus, is a real, and valuable, ard delightful entertainment.) I believe that you went out West because the perpetual sun of southern California made taking easy; there you discovered the lost romance of America, its Wild West and its pioneer days, its gold rush and its Indians. You had it in your hands, then, to make that past of ours alive; a small written literature and a remnant of oral tradition remained for you to work 

[326]

on. On the whole you did make a good beginning. You missed fine things, but you caught the simple ones; you presented the material directly, with appropriate sentiment. You relied on melodrama, which was the rightest thing you ever did. Comba and pursuit, the last-minute rescue, were the three items of your best pictilres; and your cutting department, carefully alternating the fight between white men and red with the slow-starting, distant, approaching, arriving, victorious troops from the garrison appealed properly to our soundest instincts. You went into the bad-man period; you began to make an individual soldier, Indian, bandit, pioneer, renegade, the focus of your interest: still good because you related him to an active, living background. Dear Heaven! before you had filmed Bret Harte you had created legendary heroes of your own. 

Meanwhile Mr Griffith, apparently insatiable, was developing small genre scenes of slum life while he thought of filming the tragic history of the South after the war. Other directors sought other fields notably that of the serial adventure film. Since they made money for all concerned, you will not be surprised to hear these serials praised: The Exploits of Ela, one, the whole Pearl White adventure, the thirty minutes of action closing on an impossible and unresolved climax were, of course, infinitely better pictures than your version of Mr Joseph Conrad's Victory, your Humoreske, your Should a Wife For- 

[327]

give?' They were extremely silly; they worked too closely on a scheme: getting out of last week's predicament and into next week's can hardly be called a "form." But within their limitations they used the camera for all it was worth. It didn't matter a bit - flights and that the perils were preposterous, that the pursuits were all fakes composed by the speed of the projector. You were back in the days of Nick Carter and the Liberty Boys; you hadn't heard of psychology, and drama, and art; you were developing the camera. You bored us when your effects didn't come off and I'm afraid amused us a little even when they did. But you were on the right road. 

There was very little acting in these films and in the Wild West exhibitions. There was a great deal of action. I can't recall Pearl White registering a single time; I recall only movement, which was excellent. It was later that your acting developed; up to this time you were working with people who hadn't succeeded in or were wholly ignorant of the technique of the stage; they moved before the camera gropingly at first, but gradually developing a technique suited to the camera and to nothing else. I am referring to days so far back that the old Biograph films used to be branded with the mark AB in a circle, and this mark occurred in the photographed sets to prevent stealing. In those days your actors and ac- 

[328]

tresses were exceptionally naive and creative. You were on the point of discovering mass and line in the handling of crowds, in the defile of a troop, in the movement of individuals. Mr Griffith had already discovered that four men running in opposite directions along the design of a figure 8 gave the effect of sixteen men-a discovery lightly comparable to that of Velasquez in the crossed spears of the Surrender of Breda. You would have done well to continue your experiments with nameless individuals and chaotic masses; but you couldn't. You developed what you called person ali ties-and after that, actresses. 

Before The Birth of a Nation was begun Mary Pickford had already left Griffith. I have heard that he vowed to make Mae Marsh a greater actress - as if she weren't one from the start, as if acting mattered, as if Mary Pickford ever could or needed to act. Remember that in The Avenging Conscience at least four people: Spottiswood Aiken, Henry Walthall, Blanche Sweet, and another I cannot identify the second villain-played superbly without acting. 

Conceive your own stupidity in not knowing what Vachel Lindsay discovered: that "our Mary" was literally "the Queen of my People," a radiant, lovely, childlike girl, a beautiful figurehead, a symbol of all our sentimentality. Why did you allow her to be come an actress? Why is everything associated with her later work so alien to beauty? You did not see her legend forming; you began to advertise her sal- 

[329]

ary; you have, I believe unconsciously, tried to restore her now by giving her the palest role in all literature.) that of Marguerite in Faust. You are ten years too late. In the same ten years Blanche Sweet has almost disappeared and Mae Marsh has not arrived; Gishes and Talmadges and Swansons and other fatalities have triumphed. You have taken over the stage and the opera; you have filmed Caruso and Al Jolson, too, for all I know. You now have acting and no playing. 

This is a matter of capital importance and I am willing to come closer to a definition. Acting is the way of impersonating, of rendering character, of presenting action which is suitable to the stage; it has, in the first place, a specific relation to the size of the stage and to that of the auditorium; it has also a second important relation to the lines spoken. Good actors-they are few-will always suit the gesture to the utterance in the sense that their gesture will be on the beat of the words; failure to know this ruined several of John Barrymore's soliloquies in Hamlet. Neither of these two primary and determinant circumstances affect the moving picture. It should be obvious that if good acting is adapted to the stage, nothing less than a miracle could make it also suitable to the cinema. The same thing is true of opera, which is in a desperate state because it f ailed to develop a type of representation adapted to musical instead of spoken expression. Opera and the pictures 

[330]

both needed "playing"-by which I cover other forms of representation, of impersonation, characterization, without identifying them. It is unlikely that opera and pictures require the same kind of playing; but neither of them can bear acting. Chaplin, by the way, is a player, not an actor-although we all think of him as an actor because the distinction is tardily made. I should say that Mae Marsh, too, was a player in The Birth. So was H. B. Warner in a war play called Shell 49 (I am not sure of the figure) ; and there have been others. I have never seen Conrad Veidt or Werner Kraus on the stage; in Caligari they were players, not actors. Possibly since Kraus is considered the greatest of German actors, he acted so well that he seemed to be playing. But that requires genius and the Gishes have no genius. 

The emergence of Mary Pickford and the production of The Birth of a Nation make the years 1911-14 the critical time of the movies. Nearly all your absurdities began about this time, including your protest against the word movies as no longer suited to the dignity of your art. From the success of The Birth sprang the spectacle film which was in trinsically all right and only corrupted Griffith and the pictures because it was unintelligently handled thereafter. From the success of Mary Pickford came the whole tradition of the movie as a genteel intellectual entertainment. The better side is the spectacle and the fact that in 1922 the whole mastery of 

[331]

there ap ' peared from within the doorway the arm of their mother and with a gesture of unutterable loveliness it enlaced the boy's shoulders and drew him tenderly into the house. To have omitted the tears, to have shown nothing but the arm in that single curve of beauty, required, in those days, high imagination. It was i I li f the film; one felt from that moment at e rap the little girl was already understood in the vast suffering sympathy of the mother. So much Mr Griffith never again accomplished; it was the one moment when he stood beside Chaplin as a creative artistand it was ten years ago. 

Of course if Griffith hasn't come through there is hardly anything to hope for from the others. Mr Ince always beat him in advertized expenditure; Fox was always cheaper and easier and had Annette Kellerman and did The Village Blacksmith. The logical outcome of Griffithism is in the pictures he didn't make: in When Knighthood Was in Flower and in Robin Hood, neither of which I could sit through. The lavishness of these films is appalling; the camera runs mad in everything but action, which dies a hundred deaths in as many minutes. Of what use are sets by Urban if the action which occurs in them is invisible to the naked eye. The old trick of using a crowd as a background and holding the interest in the individual has been lost; the trick of using the crowd as an individual hasn't been found 

[334]

because we must have our love story. The spectacl film is slowly settling down to the level of the stereopticon slide. 

Comparison with German films is inevitable. They are as much on the wrong track as we are; and the exception, Caligarl, is defective because in a proper attempt to believe the camera from the burden of recording actuality, the producers gave it the job of recording modern paintings for background. The acting was, however, playing; and the destruction of realism, even if it was accomplished by a questionable expedient, will have much to do with the future of the film. Yet even in the spectacle film the Germans managed to do something. Passion and Deception and the Pharaoh film and the film made out of Sumurun were not lavish. And in the manipulation of material (not of the instrument, where we know much more thap they) there came occasionally flashes of the real thing. In Deception there was a scene where the courtyard had to be cleared of an angry mob. Every American producer has handled the parallel scene and every one in the same way, centring in the middle between civilians and police. 

What Lubitsch did was to form a single line of pike staffs and to show a solid mass of crowd-the feeling of hostility was projected in the opposition of line and mass. And slowly the space behind the pike staffs opened. The bright calm sunlight fell on a wider and widening strip of the courtyard. One was 

[335]

hardly aware of struggle; all one saw was that gradually broadening patch of open, uncontested space in the light. And suddenly one knew that the courtyard was cleared, one seemed to hear the faint murmur of the crowd outside, and then silence. I am lost in admiration of this simplicity which involves every correct principle of the zsthetics of the moving picture. The whole thing was done with movement and light-the movement massed and the light on the open space. That is the true, the imaginative camera technique, which we failed to develop.' 

The object of that technique is the indirect communication of emotion-indirect because that is the surest way, in all the arts, of multiplying the degree of intensity. The American spectacle film still communicates a thrill in the direct way of a highwayman with a blackjack. But the American serious film drama communicates not even this: it is at this moment entirely dead, or in other words, wholly bogus. I may be wrong in thinking that our present position develops out of the creation of Mary Pickford as a star. The result is the same. 

For as soon as the movie became "the silent drama" it took upon itself responsibilities. It had to be dignified and artistic; it had to have literature 

"I haven't seen The Covered Wagon. Its theme returns to the legendary history of America. There is no reason why it should not have been highly imaginative. But I wonder whether the thousands of prairie schooners one hears about are the film or the image. In the latter case there is no objection. 

[336]

and actors and ideals. The simple movie plots no longer sufficed, and stage and novel were called upon to contribute their small share to the success of an art which seriously believed itself to be the consummation of all the arts. The obligation remained to choose only those examples which were suitable to the screen. It was, however, not adaptability which guided the choice, but the great name. Eventually everything was filmed because what couldn't be adapted could be spoiled. The degree of vandalism passes words; and what completed the ruin was that good novels were spoiled not to make good films, but to make bad ones. Victory was a vile film in addition to being a vulgar betrayal of Conrad; even the good Molnar with his exciting second-rate play, The Devil, found, himself so foully, so disgustingly changed on the screen that the whole idea, not a 

great one, was lost and nothing remained but a sentimental vulgarity which had no meaning of its own, quite apart from any meaning of his. In each of these the elements are the same: a psychological development through an action. By corrupting the action the producers changed the idea; bad enough in itself, they failed to understand what they were doing and supplied nothing to take the place of what they had destroyed. The actual movies so produced refused to project any consecutive significant action whatsoever. 

It would be futile to multiply examples-as fu- 

[337]

tile as to note that there have been well-filmed novels and plays. The essential thing is that nearly every picture made recently has borrowed something, usually in the interest of dignity, gentility, refinement-and the picture side, the part depending upon action before the camera, has gone steadily down. Long subtitles explain everything except the lack of action. Carefully built scenes are settings in which nothing takes place. The climax arrives in the masterpieces of the de Mille school. They are "art." They are genteel. They offend nothing-except the intelligence. High life in the de Mille manner is not recognizable as decent human society, but it is refined, and the picture with it is refined out of existence. Ten years earlier there was another type of drama: the vamp, in short, and Theda Bara was its divinity. I have little to say in its defense because it was unalterably stupid (I don't say I didn't like it). But it wasn't half so pretentious as the de Mille social drama, and not half so vulgar. What it had to say, false or banal or ridiculous, it said entirely with the camera. It appealed to low passions and it truckled to imitative morality; there was in it a sort of corruption. Yet one could resist that frank ugliness as one can't resist the polite falsehood of the new culture of the movies. 

It would be easy to exaggerate your failures. Your greatest mistake was a natural one-in taking over the realistic theatre. You knew that a photo- 

[338]

graph can reproduce actuality without significantly transposing it, and you assumed that that was the duty of the film. But you forgot that the rhythm of the film was creating something, and that this creation adapted itself entirely to the projection of emotion by means not realistic,- that in the end the camera was as legitimately an instrument of distortion as of reproduction. You gave us, in short, the pleasure of verification in every detail; the Germans who are largely in the same tradition-they should have known better because their theatre knew better-improved the method at times and counted on significant detail. But neither of you gave us the pleasure of recognition. Neither you nor they have taken the first step (except in Caligari) toward giving us the highest degree of pleasure, that of escaping actuality and entering into a created world, built on its own inherent logic, keeping time in its own rhythm where we feel ourselves at once strangers and at home. That has been done elsewhere-not in the serious film. 

I would be glad to temper all of this with praise: for Anita Loos' captions and John Emerson's occasionally excellent direction; for George Loane Tucker, for Monte Katterjohn's flashes of insight into what makes a scenario. I have liked many more films than I have mentioned here. But you are familiar with praise and there remains to say what you have missed. The moving picture when it became 

[339]

pretentious, when it went upstage and said, "dear God, make me artistic" at the end of its prayers, killed its imagination and foreswore its popularity. At your present rate of progress you will in ten years-if you survive-be no more a popular art than grand opera is. You had in your hands an incalculable instrument to set free the imagination of mankind-and the atrophy of our imaginative lives has only been hastened by you. You had also an instrument of fantasy-and you gave us Marguerite Clark in films no better than the "whimsy-me" school of stage plays. Above all, you had something fresh and clean and new; it was a toy and should have remained a toy-something for our delight. You gave us problem plays. Beauty you neither understood nor cared for; and although you talked much about art you never for a moment tried to fathom the secret sources, nor to understand the secret obligations, of art. 

Can you do anything now? I don't know and I am indifferent to your future-because there is a future for the moving picture with which you will have nothing to do. I do not know if the movie of the future will be popular-and to me it is the essence of the movie that it should be popular. Perhaps there will be a period of semi-popularity-it will be at this time that you will desert-and then the new picture will arrive without your assistance. For when you and your capitalizations and your publicity 

[340]

go down together, the field will be left free for others. The first cheap film will startle you; but the film will grow less and less expensive. Presently it will be within the reach of artists. With players instead of actors and actresses, with fresh ideas (among which the idea of making a lot of money may be absent) these artists will give back to the screen the thing you have debauched-imagination. They will create with the camera, and not record, and will follow its pulsations instead of attempting to capture the rhythm of actuality. It isn't impossible to recreate exactly the atmosphere of Anderson's I'm a Fool; it isn't impossible (although it may not be desirable) to do studies in psychology; it is possible and desirable to create great epics of American industry and let the machine operate as a character in the play-just as the land of the West itself, as the corn must play its part. The grandiose conceptions of Frank Norris are not beyond the reach of the camera. There are painters willing to work in the medium of the camera and architects and photographers. And novelists, too, I fancy, would find much of interest in the scenario as a new way of expression.' There is no end to what we can accomplish. 

The vulgar prettiness, the absurdities, the ignorances of your films haven't saved you. And although the first steps after you take away your guiding hand may be feeble, although bogus artists and 

They have done so. See "The Cinema Novel." 

[341]

Culture-hounds may capture the movie for a time in the end all will be well. For the movie is the imagination of mankind in action-and you haven't destroyed it yet. 

Back | Forward